The beginning needs to be a mix of introduction, intrigue, quality writing–and it’s a precarious balance. Too plodding and you’ve lost us. Too much information and we’re drowning. There is no room for a slow start and making up time as you go. In fact, the beginning is the hardest and arguably most important part.
But it doesn’t stop at the first five pages. Perfecting those first pages are just the beginning. The whole book needs to be as perfect and well edited as those first five pages. If the beginning isn’t captivating no one will read to the middle and the end–no matter how good the middle and ending might be. So the entirety of the book rests on the quality of those first chapters.
I suppose my message is to write and edit those first 5 pages phenomenally well, but don’t stop. Apply that eagle eye to the whole novel to set a precedent for what is to come with each turning page.
‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’ for the start of your novel:
- Start close as close to the action as you possibly can. No contrived build up. Place us right in the thick of things.
- Don’t tell us who the characters are and what they’re up to. Show us by placing us in the scene and let the reader work through it with the characters. It’s okay that we don’t know everything when we start.
- It’s okay for the reader to be confused. That means they’ll want to connect the dots. Just don’t make the dots so far apart that no reader can find their way from one to the other.
- Assume high intelligence on the part of the reader, that they’ll figure out the setting and stakes of the characters–and want to.
- Set up the stakes of the novel early. The reader wants to know why they are reading the book.
- A literary novel does not mean it doesn’t have a plot or stakes. In fact they need to set those very early on too.
- A commercial novel does not mean plot is all there is. There is setting of the scene and deepening of character motivation to be written.
- Edit self-indulgent language from the start. No reader is going to want to continue to read something that is merely there to pat the author on the back.
- Don’t try to get fancy with experimental structure. The established plot structure worked for Shakespeare and it will work for you.
Q: What is your strategy for starting a novel?
Image via vi.sualize.us